Skunk Cabbage

Plant heats up snow

Robert Meganck

Skunk Cabbage

Farewell winter! In the fall it was romantic to visualize a white Christmas, bobsledding on the hill, Winter Olympics. In December I can admire Robert Frost’s poem with delight — but today they are old-fashioned thoughts! I have been dreaming of skunk cabbage for weeks and now my dream is realized.

Skunk cabbage! This name grossly misrepresents the characteristics of this plant (Symplocarpus foetidus). People who know the fascination of freshwater bogs and swamps start thinking about skunk cabbage in January and February. Its appearance is a first hurrah for spring and causes an excitement aptly called “Skunk Fever.” This member of the Arum family is hard to find when it blooms, for it blooms before it has true leaves. It pushes up in the heart of winter through moist, spongy ground, heaving through leaf mold from hardwood trees, and confirms the sun is returning.

It is well camouflaged — mottled yellow-green and purple spathes appear, similar to the Jack-in-the-Pulpit, a close relative. These arched pulpits each house a spadix covered with tiny, perfect flowers, which fertilize themselves.

By the time the large, broad, true leaves appear, the seeds are set and the stalked spadix lies prostrate beneath oncoming leaves. It is now that the plant begins to resemble cabbage. Its large, bright green leaves, often 15 inches high, look fresh and good to eat. By the time these leaves are mature, they have considerable odor, which accounts for the name “skunk.” In the cold days of February and March there is little strength to the odor, but as the plant mates during the summer it becomes noteworthy. The plant is called Tabac du Diable in Canada. It must have been a shocking smoke or chew.

It is rare and should not be removed from its highly specialized environment. A small change in soil quality or dampness is enough to destroy a colony. I’m looking forward to this month.

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